God, Gays & Threeways: The Battle For The Soul of RiverdaleBy Shawn Baker / Sunday, April 25th, 2010
Remember the good ol’ days — good for some, at least — before we had Muslim Presidents, civil rights, hippies, working women, vegans, and non-lobotomized gays? Don’t you wish you could retreat into those preserved-in-amber Towns That Dreaded Sundown and escape all this terrifying Communist cha-cha-change?
Me neither, but such towns-that-never-were — the Mayberrys, Hootervilles, and Pleasantvilles — are sacred in some circles, and now Riverdale, home of the Archie Gang, just got a little bigger thanks to the arrival of a new addition. I’m talking about new kid on the block Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first openly (and readers are emphasizing that modifier) gay transplant who’ll be hitting the pages come September.
Since everything in Post-Dubya U.S.A. is a convoluted Liberal conspiracy designed to corrupt children and take something away from the God Wads, Kevin’s entrÃ©e is, natch, polarizing, and the Gays with their fiendish insistence on existing are the culprits. Reaction from the Freepers is typically subtle: “An extremely marginal and diseased viewpoint,” “Giving the Arabs yet another reason to seek nuclear weapons…,” and “Next we will see a misunderstood islamofascist terrorist” are the more clever examples of the ‘Merican perspective. And hey, that’s the go-to reaction for the American Right: take two words that scare you and/or you don’t understand and combine them, thereby creating a red-baits-bull buzzword that makes even less sense when conjoined. Kevin’s “Bitch — you serious?” face says it all.
Reaction from those who don’t fantasize about a world of debtors’ prisons and Road Warrior-style compounds has been comparatively measured, with praise being granted on the matter-of-fact way in which Jughead Jones apparently takes the news from Kevin, not to mention the bemusement with which Kevin reacts to the “Just threeway already!” tripling of Archie, Betty, and Veronica.
Archie Comics has made strides toward more nuanced ethnic inclusion in depicting the young denizens of Riverdale to varying degrees of success — the town does have a teenage witch, a Carrie Nations-esque all-girl rock group, and dreamboat cartoonist Chuck Clayton going for it — but the introduction of Kevin is notable, thus far seeming to treat him as an actual character rather than a message with legs and great hair, a tough trick to pull off especially when it comes to content aimed at young adults. How seamless his immersion into Riverdale crew politics will be is up for grabs, but readers and casual observers alike are hoping he delivers some much-needed timeliness to the group, maybe even triggering some traces of depth in the colorless girls who rather inexplicably fall all over themselves for Archie’s attentions.
As far as hand-wringing about Archie and the gang being hijacked for the purposes of disseminating a kooky ideology goes, detractors of the Kevin storyline may want to give it a rest, seeing as it already happened in the ’70s and resulted in some of the most cringe-inducing morals-mongering the series has ever featured. The comic has long had its pre-Kevin unintentional gay innuendos, but an Evangelical spin — like ex-gay therapy — just amped up the tension.
Gracelessly co-opted by artist Al Hartley under the aegis of Christian literature firm The Fleming H. Revell Co., this creation of a Bizarro World Riverdale came after the notorious Comic Code Authority-approved book burnings of the ’50s and was clearly a push against the godless turpitudes of the ’60s, the familiar Archie kids transformed into a shrill, mirthless lot of finger-wagging wipes whose adventures were now the most transparent pretexts for Christian propaganda. Writer Kliph Nesteroff describes his childhood encounter with the Hartley Archies after discovering them in a box in his grandmother’s basement as “a feeling similar to that of being molested“ (do yourself a solid and read his hilarious and exhaustive chronicling of god-awful Christian Archie Comics at Generation Exploitation). He’s not using hyperbole.
Hartley — son of witch-hunting, union-hating congressman Fred Hartley — and co. never met a frightful Liberal stereotype they didn’t like, and their pious Riverdale is a descent into Born Again McCarthy Hell. Which plotline is the most patronizingly heinous of the lot? Betty praying in the cafeteria while a gaggle of visiting evil Liberal media elites look on in horror? Archie in a World War II biplane advising kids that “It’s time for God’s people to go on the offensive!”? Maybe the introduction of hippie student Legion — presumably named after the biblical demon-possessed wretch — who’s basically a Cousin It-groomed cascade of hair and bare feet? This could’ve been you, Kevin.
How about Betty — whom the writers seemed to really latch onto as the entitled, snowy white face of their buzzkill campaign — lamenting that teaching Evolution in schools makes kids act like monkeys, while Archie proactively starts a Christian bookstore with the help of an imbecilic, book-eating Native American brave? Could it be Archie visiting the Riverdale ghetto to teach poor black kids that God loves them and that they should accept their lot in life — a fact only a suburban white kid could possibly relate to them? The nadir may be Jughead’s pup Hot Dog wandering into a Christian discussion group and having an epiphany that not only are animals like him inferior brutes because they can’t worship God, but so are soulless atheists subhuman in their own right.
Race didn’t fare much better in Riverdale until recently. Very recently. Archie may’ve gotten a kiss from Valerie of Josie & The Pussycats fame, but interracial pairings in the comic were a contentious topic among the writing staff well into the ’90s, especially if the white half of the coupling was a girl. Betty was slated to have a new career and an accompanying new love interest named Dexter in 1992, but writer Matt Wayne came up against a livid editor who won out and ultimately nixed the angle — his objection being that Dexter was clearly superior to Archie in every respect — the implication being that a black male/white female pairing was verboten. Dexter was quickly recolored for publication and soon shuffled out. 2008 (yikes) found another intended black male love interest for redhead Cheryl Blossom again obviously and awkwardly whitewashed at the eleventh hour of publication.
It’s easy to regard Kevin or any of the other minority players as frivolous fluff, but take into account that Archie and its sundry spin-offs are likely the most accessible and recognizable comic books available in retail, sights all of us likely encounter weekly without even realizing it. A Comics Alliance commenter perfectly encapsulates the import of this visibility:
“If you walk into any Walmart in America, you will find Archie Comics Digests sitting there in the impulse buy rack on your way through the checkout. You will NOT find comics from Marvel or DC. This image — in a place where normal, everyday, non-comics reading people will see it — is potentially then much more relevant than any image in a comic that will only be seen by non-casual comics readers, which (like it or not) is a relatively small crowd nowadays.”
Even if Archie‘s main audience may no longer necessarily be kids, that prominence remains, and if the current political climate makes anything readily apparent, it’s that the minds of adults are the most in need of adjustment.
So what’s in store for Kevin now that he’s in Riverdale? Will his presence finally trigger the Rapture (and will Kevin care for Hot Dog when they’re both unceremoniously left behind?), or will he just become one of the gang? Will smitten kitten Veronica’s crush on him bring about a whole new type of love triangle, leaving Archie to at last learn what it’s like to be one end played against the other now that’s he’s proposed to her? Will Kevin get a boyfriend, and will it be lifelong girl-shunner Jughead?
Only time will tell, and time is one thing even Riverdale can’t shut out forever.
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